LAS VEGAS — Six minutes into his new Showtime series, Andrew Dice Clay faces one of his harshest critics. It isn’t MTV, which once banned him, or the National Organization for Women, which protested his hosting “Saturday Night Live” back in 1990.
It is David, a gay man getting ready to marry into the comic’s TV family. The Dice Man has just offered a little pre-wedding advice. David snickers. Tips from a man who refers to women as piglets?
“Yeah,” Clay says with a Brooklyn shrug. “In my act. There’s a big difference between Andrew, who is in front of you right now, and the guy onstage when I’m performing.”
That’s the conflict that is central to both “Dice” — a scripted, semi-autobiographical series that premieres April 10 — and the 58-year-old comedian’s wild career. Clay has been blasted by those who think he’s mean, sexist and profane. He’s been embraced and praised by those who either get the joke or say he’s extremely talented, including directors Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and super-producer Rick Rubin.
But even his colleagues admit they sometimes struggle to parse Andrew Clay Silverstein, a hardworking and loyal father, from the trash-talking, id-gone-wild known as Dice.
“Only he knows what’s going on inside of him,” says Scot Armstrong, the “Old School” screenwriter who created “Dice.” “There’s just pure ego and outrageous and funny, and then there’s the guy who is so kind and is at home with the kids and managing his sons’ band.”
“People don’t realize it’s an amalgamation of two human beings,” says Bruce Rubenstein, Clay’s manager. “This is a guy who doesn’t let me curse in his house.”
Clay hopes “Dice” is the latest in a slow-burning comeback that began in 2011, when he did a multi-episode turn on “Entourage,” included his role as Augie in Allen’s 2013 film “Blue Jasmine” and led to a stunning performance as a coked-up radio mogul in the Scorsese-directed premiere of HBO’s “Vinyl” this year.
“If you want proof of how brilliant he is, just take the two segments in ‘Vinyl’ and put them together like a movie by themselves,” says actor and playwright Eric Bogosian. “I’ve now watched it four times. I can’t believe what he’s doing in those two scenes.”
Not only is Clay excited about “Dice,” he has also relaunched his stand-up career, which fizzled out after its early ’90s peak. In those days, the comic sold out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row. Recently, he’s been playing a 300-seat room in Las Vegas. That’s better than where he started his comeback — the back room of a sushi restaurant.
“But I believed,” he says. “The one thing that is very real about me is my confidence. I’m not sure where it comes from. I have the strength of 10 men in me as far as confidence. So even when I was in that back room, as long as I’m killing that crowd, it’s going to change, it’s going to build. It didn’t bother me. I’m coming back.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Clay was a natural performer.
“He would come out of his bedroom and we’d all be sitting in the living room, and he’d do Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Elvis and John Wayne,” remembers Natalie, his older sister. “He would be hysterical.”
Clay was not a comedy geek. He was into Ginger Baker more than George Carlin and took up the drums. He also loved movies. He still remembers seeing “Rocky” at a theater on Avenue U.
“I got the message from that movie,” Clay says. “The line is ‘I don’t want to be a bum from the neighborhood.’ That was my thing. I wasn’t a college guy. I barely got through high school. I was a decent drummer, but I wasn’t Buddy Rich. So I was going to find what was burning inside of me. And a few years later, ‘Grease’ came out.”
Clay’s first act opened with an impression of the Jerry Lewis-era “Nutty Professor,” glasses and mousy voice. The lights dropped and, when they flipped back on, there would be Clay in leather and slicked-back hair as Travolta’s Danny Zuko. He’d sing and dance through an explosive cover of “Greased Lightning.” That led to the development of “Dice,” a meathead so obnoxious, so over-the-top and so sexually charged that he delivered unprintable nursery rhymes punctuated with a staccato “OH!”
It was performance art, really, and he was as committed as Andy Kaufman. But as Clay’s popularity exploded, and he began to fill arenas, his take on women, in particular, got him into trouble. Dice would say anything, no matter how nasty or hateful. Andrew would not. The distinction became harder to explain, particularly as Clay wore the same clothes as his iconic character.
“It was very interesting,” says Rubin, who produced several of Clay’s comedy albums. “If you took his material out of context, if somebody repeated what he said, it might offend you. Where if you heard him say it, it wouldn’t. The humor is in knowing what he’s saying is wrong.”
Clay could be surprisingly subversive. Take 1990’s double live album, “The Day the Laughter Died.” Instead of filling an arena, he recorded an unannounced set at a small club. He brought little material, only rage. Dice taunted audience members until they walked out. He made jokes about incest to a father watching with his college-age daughters. He groaned when someone requested his signature nursery rhymes.
“This ain’t what this show’s about,” the Dice Man says at one point. “This show’s not about laughter.”
He had already been banned by MTV after a blue three-minute set at the Video Music Awards. And only months earlier, SNL cast member Nora Dunn boycotted the show, calling host Clay a “hatemonger.” Dogged by controversy and a poor script, his feature film, “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” bombed at the box office. Still, even Roger Ebert, who savaged the movie, wrote that Clay had a future as an actor.
Years later, that prediction was finally realized. Woody Allen had Louis C.K. and James Gandolfini audition for “Blue Jasmine” to play Augie, a guy wins the lottery and is then swindled out of his money. Clay beat them out.
“To me, it wasn’t any surprise,” Allen says. “He just has a natural, easy-going quality. He’s not a guy who acts or puts on an artificial personality.”
As for the Dice Man, Allen says he understands the challenge presented by a strong onstage persona.
“I remember an interview with Marlon Brando,” Allen says, “and he was saying, after he did ‘On the Waterfront’ and played Stanley Kowalski [in “A Streetcar Named Desire”], everybody confused him with the roles he played.”
These days, Clay splits his time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He’s been divorced three times, although he and his third ex, Valerie Vasquez, remain together. Clay is close with his two grown sons, Max and Dillon, who play together in a rock band.
“Dice” is meant to show another side of Clay as he struggles to regain his career and profile. In the first episode, he worries he’s going to get gouged by a replacement window salesman because of the fact that he’s the famous Andrew Dice Clay. “Who?” the salesman asks.
Later, he’s forced into a blackjack marathon to try to win enough to write a big enough check, for a wedding present, to prove to the gay couple that he’s a good guy. The gambling is not a stretch for Clay, who says he once lost as much as $2 million in a single night playing blackjack.
Onstage, Clay’s Dice Man generally remains in character, although he’s grown older. He still chain-smokes and wears leather. He’s still confident and still cringe-inducingly dirty. But he does make references to aging, and he isn’t nearly as confrontational as the younger model.
“When I first put that together, it’s almost like he was very robotic,” Clay says. “Today, I’m very much myself on stage, and the material is all sexual, but it’s all about relationships and marriage and living together, and what it all boils down to. It’s almost like a comic psychologist for the audience. But the material is hard-core. Because to make people laugh at themselves, you’ve got to paint a cartoon in their head.”
He paints that cartoon on a recent Saturday night in Vegas. Music blasts as Clay arrives on stage, lights a cigarette and takes a typically melodramatic, deep drag before speaking. Dice has always talked only when he’s ready.
Early in the set, Clay begins to focus on a man at one of the front tables he names “Joey.” He then proceeds to counsel him about relationships, walking him though a nostalgic — and X-rated — trip down memory lane.
“Remember, in the beginning, when you could call her at 2:30 in the morning, rotary style.”
“Remember, the way she’d get all liquored up like a sloppy, little pig.”
The rest is largely unprintable. By the end, Clay is ready to reel off rhymes like an oldies band on a PBS special. The crowd cheers.
“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet. Eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider. He sat down beside her. He said” — and here, everyone in the audience joins in like it’s 1989 — “what’s in the bowl, b----?”
Clay doesn’t miss a beat as he lifts an arm, the Elvis of Brooklyn, and delivers his signature finish.